The Ultimate Guide to London on a Budget
London is well known as one of the most expensive cities in the world. But don’t let that keep you from visiting this major vacation spot. You don’t have to break the piggy bank to experience the charm and excitement of London. In fact, with the right tips and planning, a weeklong, action-packed vacation to London can be cheaper than you think.
First, and most importantly, find the right flight. Typical vacation months carry higher fare prices. London is generally the lowest-cost European city to fly to, no matter the season. Tickets in the spring and summer can be upwards of $1500, even when purchased months in advance. However, tickets for January-March are far more affordable and can be found for under $500 from medium-large US airports. Plan your trip in advance and give yourself time to price check tickets. Make sure you’re looking at individual airline websites and not ‘discount fares’ sites. These sites always charge a processing fee that airline companies usually don’t. If a fare is available, the airline will have it listed. Take the time to check several out. When you find your perfect flight, most airline sites will let you choose your seat assignment, meal specifications, and check-in method on their site. Plus, buying directly from the airline means you have the security of knowing your ticket is real and that you’re giving your credit card information to a trustworthy establishment. Usually these companies have competitive fares: American Airlines, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, US Airways, Continental and NWA. Be sure to check flights from neighboring airports . . . a longer drive can often mean a cheaper flight!
Once you have your ticket, it’s time to start looking into planning your activities. Many parts of Europe are small and can be seen easily by walking or taking a train from town to town. This is not the case with London. London is a huge, busy, thriving city. This is one vacation you’ll want to do a fair bit of planning in advance for, otherwise you’ll spend twice as much as necessary and you’ll probably miss out on a lot of the things that make London unique.
Start online. A quick search for London tourist sites will pop up several. www.visitlondon.com is the official tourism page for the city. On the site are hundreds of tips and ideas, as well as reviews of clubs, restaurants, shops, shows and attractions. Other sites offer similar services and many offer attraction packages at a discount rate. www.londontown.com, www.visitbritain.com, and www.londontourist.org/free.html are some of the most popular tourism sites. Browse these and see what sorts of discounts are being offered. This will give you a chance to start planning out some of your days as well. Remember, buying tickets or ticket packages in advance can save money, will definitely save time in line, and can help you budget your vacation better. The fewer lines you stand in and the less cash you need to carry, the better!
One of the most useful tourism conveniences available is the London Pass. Available for pre-order at www.Londonpass.com, this card is your ticket, literally. The card can be activated for as many days as you choose, and each is priced accordingly. The pass will get you in the door of over 50 London attractions, including Tower of London, the number one visitor site. The prepaid admission also allows you immediate entry, so none of your time is wasted standing in a single line. The pass can also be combined with a travel pass for a lump sum. The travel pass is valid all the days of the pass and will carry you anywhere, anytime, through all six zones of the London Underground. The card will save you a ton on ticket prices and you’ll never have to stand in line for them. **Tip – for the really thrifty, choose a pass that’s only three days instead of all seven. Schedule those three days to include all of London’s most expensive and popular attractions. The more you see in those three days, the more you’ll get for your money.
If you don’t plan on using the London Pass for all of your days, or wish to deal with travel arrangements separately, visit www.tfl.gov.uk. London has possibly the best public transit system in the world. Tourists can buy various day passes for any combination of zones on the Underground or purchase Oyster, the rechargeable fare card, as well as find maps, fare prices, as well as investigate bus routes and national rail schedules. Purchase your tickets on line in advance and you’ll be able to leave the airport without waiting in line to buy a ticket or buying a ticket for more than you needed to.
The best places to stay in London are hundreds of dollars a night. So what to do if you’re on a budget? Look for independent hotels that are in the heart of the city, but don’t empty your wallet. Check this site, www.travelstay.com, for hotels and prices. Here you can search hundreds of cheap hotels by choosing your accommodation options. Reservations can be made right from the site, months in advance. Most of the hotels are small and offer a very basic breakfast along with their rate, saving you one meal each day from your expenses. Make sure to check your preferences, and make sure the room you choose is exactly what you want. Not all rooms have a private bath, so make sure to check that box if you want one. Otherwise, a shared bath will probably save you a few dollars on your total hotel bill.
Exchange rates between the US dollar and British pound can be excruciating, but they’re nothing compared to the fees many locations charge for currency conversion. The best way to avoid this is not to convert cash. Instead, simply withdraw money from an ATM as soon as you land in the airport. Carry a small amount of cash on the plane, in case of an absolute emergency. The ATM fee will be far less than the conversion amount, plus you’ll know exactly how much in British money you’ll have. If you have to change your American money, find a location that doesn’t charge a fee. There are several around, even in popular department stores. In addition, if you have Visa or MasterCard, you can use them in almost every store, café, restaurant and hotel. Keep the cash for purchases at markets and street vendors.
Buy a travel guidebook. Read it before you leave. The best have pages full of pictures and maps. Many will divide London into the various neighborhoods, highlighting the major activities and options in each neighborhood. Find one with a complete map of the underground, a map of London and all it’s neighborhoods, and a full map of the UK. It’s much easier to find where you’re going if you have a good map and tips to carry along on how to get where you’re going.
Finally, remember that not everything you do in London has to cost a fortune. Take a stroll past parliament. Visit the outside of Buckingham Palace and the Mall. There are plenty of statues and gardens to occupy any traveler. The city is rich with history and culture. Take time to enjoy your surroundings. Grab lunch from a small café and enjoy it in Trafalgar Square. The National Portrait Gallery has a free display right in the Square. Spend an afternoon at one of London’s famous markets. You may be tempted to shop, but if you’re really short on cash, limit your spending at the market to just your lunch for that day. Portobello Market in Noting Hill is famous for it’s variety and unique selections of everything from antiques to fruit to clothing.
London can be intimidating to any traveler, but with the right preparation and tools, anyone can experience this fabulous city, no matter how much you’re able to spend. Buying your way into attractions, purchasing your transit passes, booking flights and hotel rooms can be done months in advance. Paying over several months makes the costs far more bearable. Truly, everyone can enjoy a fantastic week of vacation in beautiful London.